September 15, 2019 • 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1: Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14
Psalm: 50:3–4, 12–13, 17, 19
Reading 2: 1 Timothy 1:12–17
Gospel: Luke 15:1–32
I have to admit that I rather groaned when I saw that the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is such a familiar tale, and although it is, of course, a good one, I felt that I really couldn’t bring anything new to the equation… not that there needs to be anything new, but still.… It is the familiar story of a profligate son who comes to the end of his purse and then comes to his senses and goes back home, much to the joy of his father who readily accepts him back. The father of the story is God, and we are the sons, either the profligate one or the incensed one. It is always a humbling exercise to figure out which one we would have been. As for myself, I would have been the incensed one, I am fairly sure.
As I read the first reading from Exodus, about the Golden Calf (such a silly thing to worship, right?) and the small commentary on the passage in our Canadian Sunday Missal, I realized that, before the son in the Gospel could return to his loving father, he had to have left. But why? Why would the young man leave an obviously generous and loving father? If the father was a skinflint, he certainly wouldn’t even have considered giving his son his inheritance early, but he did. He had, in the words of Pope Francis, an open hand. So why did he leave? I propose to you that he left for the same reason that the Israelites left God when Moses went up onto the mountain. The son left because of the Golden Calf principle.
We have all known Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, who have wandered away from their faith. Maybe you were one of those. But I think all of us have a tendency to do this, more or less. Our faith is not something that can stand still. We are either moving forward or we are drifting away. We often do the one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance. We find it difficult work to focus on the future, when the present is so, well, present! For the ancient Israelites who actually saw the pillar of fire and cloud, who saw the Red Sea part and walked through it, who saw the destruction of the Egyptian army, apparently God was still not present enough for them. Moses went up to the mountain to speak with God, and because he delayed to come down, they threw up their hands in disgust and decided to do their own thing. They were like immature, whining children. They complained about their freedom from slavery, about not having their delectable foods, about Moses taking SO LONG. It was all about them, about what they wanted, about what would satisfy them (or so they thought), about immediacy rather than patient endurance.
Does that sound familiar to you, because I sure see myself in all of this! They just could not wait for that man to come back down the mountain.
And what about our Prodigal? Well, that is an easy one, isn’t it? In spite of having a loving and good father, he didn’t want any more of that murky responsibility, hard work, and patient toil. Do not despair if your children are the same; it is not your fault. When they reach the age of accountability, they will be responsible for making their own decisions. Just pray!
This son wanted to have some fun. He was young and healthy. He wanted to indulge himself in the world and experience it all. He was a hedonist par excellence. So he received all the father had to give him, and he went out and wasted the entire lot of it on worldly indulgences, until he was left half starved and eating out of a pig trough. Some of us may pat ourselves on the back that we have never been quite as bad as the Prodigal (although some of us HAVE been that bad), but if you are like me, you have stepped in that direction any number of times.
There is a reason why St. Paul repeatedly told his churches to slay the flesh, to beat it into submission, to put it to death. It is because it is like a sneaky little unseen virus which, if given enough encouragement, or even if it is resolutely ignored, can suddenly take over your life. A one-time small hobby can become a Golden Calf and turn itself into a monster which demands more and more time, money and effort. The same can be said of pursuing other legitimate things like careers, housing, clothing, and food, and entertainment. All of these can become blinding distractions from what really matters. We cannot give to charity or to the Church because we have a mortgage which is much too large, because the house itself is much too large, or because all of our money goes towards several car payments, or the cottage we just bought, or the garage or rec room full of the latest gadgets and entertainments, or we just have to try all those fancy new restaurants, or get yet another pair of shoes. And how can we go to Mass when Sue, and Joe, and little Katy have their soccer and baseball games?
You see, our idolatry is actually very real. Every day the world bombards us with images of things we must have and we must experience. It tells us from every quarter who we ought to be and what we ought to do and not do. It is constantly trying to mold us into its golden image. This is no accident. The more Satan can distract us, the less we can become like God, whom Satan hates; the less time we will have for the Body of Christ; the more chance that we will miss eternity in heaven altogether. Every day is a challenge to see past all those things, some of them even legitimate needs, and to look further towards God and godliness.
So what about our second reading? St. Paul writes about himself, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, and who judged me faithful enough to call me into his service, even though I used to be a blasphemer and did all I could to injure and discredit the faith.” Was Paul himself an idolater, he who described himself as the greatest of sinners, but was at the same time, in his own estimate, a Pharisee of Pharisees? I think he was, after a fashion. Pope Francis has often warned about rigid thinking, about being a fundamentalist (within Catholicism rather than Protestantism), and about overzealousness in terms of traditionalism (things of the past, rather than Traditions handed down and which are irrefutable). He argues that this way of thinking lacks vision and love, as if the person who thinks this way has actually idolized the truth for which he is arguing — my words, not his.
Now that seems a rather odd thing to say, but if you idolize an idea or a way of doing things, you can also lose your way. The idea can become the be-all-and-end-all, and your vision become narrow and short-sighted. Perhaps this is what happened to Paul, who was in the Lord’s eyes “faithful enough” to be called, and yet who remained blind until that day on the road to Damascus. He was blinded by zeal, by his own faithfulness to the Pharisaical tradition, by his own love for Israel. It does seem strange, because all those things were good things in many ways, yet it caused him to be short sighted enough NOT to be able to see who Jesus was.
I have seen Catholics become very divisive because of zeal. I have seen Catholic converts wander away from the Church because it didn’t prove itself to be all that they thought it ought to be, or because, in their estimate, it was less than their former Protestant tradition in some particular way. We can fall in love with a certain misplaced ideal, and Satan can use that disappointment to turn us in the wrong direction. We must always be aware of his tricks. Two quotes come to mind on this subject, and I will leave them here for you to ponder. The first is by Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:
Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks the truth.
The second is a quote from St. Porphyrios:
You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.